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Teens and Music: Noise or Necessary?

Music's central role in identity formation

Several years ago, a colleague of mine, "Judy," began to notice changes in her then 13-year-old son "Dave." Dave was once a cheerful and easy-going kid, but he was beginning to get despondent and often seemed sad. They used to be close and Dave would confide in Judy. But this was different. When she tried talking to him, she only got one-word responses. Judy knew something was off, but didn't know what nor did she know how to help.

When driving her son to school and various extracurricular activities, Judy generally chose what CD and/or radio station to listene to. A song came over the air, the kind of song that would prompt Judy to change stations. It sounded angry, sad, and confused and the words weren't kind.

Judy reached to change the station, but Dave asked her to leave that song on. He liked that song and wanted to listen to it. And without fully understanding why, she let him.

When the ended, Judy didn't admonish her son for liking this "horrible" music. She didn't reproach him and try to get him to see why that song may not be the best one to listen to. Instead, she asked him "What do you like about that song?"

Dave then opened up and shared with his mother some of the problems and issues he had been struggling with. They talked for awhile, and together decided that his challenges were significant enough that they should set up an appointment with a counselor.

Judy went with her gut, and instead of telling Dave what he can and cannot listen to, she used this song as a way to communicate with her son. As a way to understand him better. Because she went with her gut, Judy was able to tap into some difficult feelings her son was experiencing. Within a couple weeks, they started him in therapy and Dave was able to turn it around.

It's a natural part of development for a teenager to rebel against authority. It's part of becoming your own person and forming your own identity--one that's often as separate from how your parents are as you can get.

Music also plays a large role during this time period as teenagers generation after generation identify with artists and musical styles that reflect their identity as individuals and as a generation.

Parents across the decades lament the types of music their children listened to. In the last 100 years, it was jazz, then big band, rock n' roll, funk, electonic music, rap, and hip-hop. Generation after generation, parents have complained about the "noise" their children listen to, refusing to understand or listening to "that music."

The movie The Music Never Stopped is based on this type of parent-child dynamic. The father, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons, loves big band music, but his relationship with his son, once strong and close, slowly disintegrates as the son begins to follow and fall in love with rock bands like the Grateful Dead.

In this particular story, music helps them slowly rebuild their fractured relationship. And although this story is based on true events, music can have that ability to connect us with each other, if we are open to receiving and understanding it.

So what's the take home lesson? It's this...

Parents--it may be tempting to try and control what our children listen to. And you may need to set boundaries for certain types of songs.

But consider the value music can play in helping you understand this stranger that took over your sweet child's body. Perhaps their music can provide you with an opportunity to talk and to try to understand who they are becoming and what they're going through.

As the famous jazzmaster Charlie Parker said: Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your own wisdom.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

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